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The extraordinary thing about the August telephone workers strike against Verizon Communications was that 87,000 operators and line technicians refused to work for 18 days not over the pocketbook issues of wages and benefits, but over the opportunity to greatly increase the chances of organizing the companys non-union wireless workers.
This strike was about the future composition of the union following the $65 billion merger between Bell Atlantic Corporation and GTE Corporation that gave birth this summer to Verizon Communications. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the smaller International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers saw the merger as a critical make or break point in the life of organized labor in the telecom industry.
Although union jobs comprise about 53 percent of Verizons total workforce of 250,000, most of these positions lie in the companys traditional fixed-line telephone business. The new jobs, the jobs tied to wireless and broadband communications, are found in Verizon Wireless. But of these positions, about 30,000 and growing, only 50 are unionized. CWA leadership saw this strike as a chance to target Verizons expanding wireless operations. Conversely, company management hoped to curtail union attempts to bring Verizon Wireless employees into the fold. For the past few years, Verizon has watched as AT&T has clamped down on union efforts to organize more of its employees, currently about 25 percent of the companys total workforce. The CWA charges that AT&T regularly violates a 1998 neutrality agreement that calls for the company to remain impartial while the two unions attempt to organize AT&Ts non-union employees, once again a group that includes AT&Ts flourishing wireless division.
The new Verizon is the largest local telephone company in the country with annual revenues expected to top $65 billion for 2000. Verizons cellular telephone subsidiary, Verizon Wireless, is the largest cellular provider. (AT&T remains the countrys largest long-distance company).
Entering into negotiations with Verizon, the CWA and the IBEW decided that rather than attempt to obstruct the advance of new technologies, or defiantly guard the job security of its current membershipas unions have notoriously done in the pastthe two telecommunications unions focused on securing a streamlined method for signing up new workers known as the card-check procedure. (The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Workers (HERE) have used the card-check process to successfully organize many of the largest hotels in Las Vegas.)
A relatively new phenomenon in labor organizing, the card-check allows workers to become union members if a majority of employees at a particular worksite sign a card indicating that they want to join. The procedure circumvents the tedious and often losing process of trying to win union recognition through the slow and overburdened National Labor Relations Board. (The NLRB acknowledges that one out of every ten workers who tries to organize is fired; the board has a backlog of 25,000 cases.)
The CWA first won a card- check agreement at SBC Communications in 1996. Since then, the union increased the percentage of unionized employees at SBC to 63 percent or 129,600 of 204,500 total workers, giving it the highest percentage of union employees of any major telecommunications company in the industry.
Although the CWA and the IBEW would eventually win a 12 percent pay raise over three years at Verizon, the focus of the negotiations held in Washington DC was on winning a card-check agreement, something the union had failed to do two years earlier during a much shorter strike.
The decision to concentrate on future organizing rather than wages and benefits was a critical break with the past, observed Tom Juravich, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This victory was an indication of labors strategic approach to organizing, he said. Were not seeing those long drawn out battles we saw in the 1980s, simply because unions are being a lot wiser. Instead of striking all the time, and losing, they are being a lot more strategic.
On the public relations front, the union, representing workers in 11 states from Maine to Virginia, had the good luck of going out on strike just as Verizon was launching a multimillion advertising campaign to publicize the Bell Atlantic-GTE merger. Featuring the omnipresent baritone of actor James Earl Jones, the ads coached viewers learn how to pronounce the new nameVer-EYE-zon and explain its origin: a combination of horizon and veritas, the Latin word for truth.
Although company officials insisted that the strike had not taken the punch out of its advertising campaign, union negotiators felt as though their position was strengthened by Verizons desire not to let the hundreds of unrepaired phone lines and unattended service orders that had built up during the walkout sully its new corporate image. That was a stroke of strategizing genius, added Juravich.
At the rank-and-file level, the focus was on winning card-check. Over the course of the past year, the CWA held a series of educational workshops to convey to members that although the economy was comparatively strong and that the Bell Atlantic contract prohibited the company from laying-off or transferring any worker, the future did not look bright.
The merger with GTE was fast adding jobs to its non-union Cellular and Internet services subsidiary Verizon Wireless while growth in Verizons fixed-wireline business, or to use industry jargon, Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), had been nearly flat. Bob Master, political director of the CWAs New York office, recounts that the union took great pains to emphasize to its members that the Bell Atlantic-GTE merger would likely accelerate the companys practice of outsourcing and moving newly created jobs to non-union areas of the country and the company. Unless steps were made to organize its cellular subsidiary Verizon Wirelessowned 55 percent by Verizon and 45 percent by Britains Vodafone plcunion members would see a weakening in their wages and benefits if not the gradual elimination of their jobs.
Were at this moment of transition in the telecommunications industry, said Master. Were saying that the union has to be a part of the future here, and that includes wireless, Internet services, high-speed digital lines, cable-TVall the stuff that is developing out of the convergence of telecommunications services.
Prior to the strike, just 50 out of Verizon Wireless 30,000 workers were organized, the result of a small group of technicians that Bell Atlantic needed in the mid-1980s when it began its cellular build-up. (Just two years ago, Bell Atlantics wireless operations counted just 7,100 employees.)
To convince workers to go on strike for an issue that did not directly impact their jobs was seen as a test of leaderships connection to its rank-and-file. Master says the unions directors debated amongst themselves for over a year about whether the membership could be convinced to strike in order to win a card-check agreement. This was a posed as crucial test of our ability to grow along with the company, Master adds.
At issue was the future of the telecommunications industry, and what role, if any, organized labor would play in it. For unions, the cold reality was that as wireless, Internet, and broadband industries have grown in the last 15 to 20 years, unions have been slow to organize them. While wireless are growing, voice-telephone businesses are either steady or shrinking. The unions have to go to where the dues paying membership isits a matter of survival, observed AT&T spokesperson Burke Stinson.
If they werent obvious before the strike, two themes became preeminent as a result of the walkout: first, that demand for wireless and cellular services has unequivocally changed the business priorities of the major telecommunications companies; and secondly, that a decade of multi-billion dollar mergers had reshaped the companies themselves.
Like all seven former Baby Bells, Verizon grew out of the 1984 break-up of AT&T Corp. The Supreme Court anti-trust decision broke the telecom monopoly into seven companies, among them NYNEX and Bell Atlantic. In 1997, those two companies merged. That consolidation led to others. SBC Communications bought Pacific Telesis Group, the parent of Pacific Bell, in 1997 for $23.5 billion, and then two years later completed a $62 billion deal for Ameritech Corp., the former Chicago-based Baby Bell that served much of the Midwest. (At the time, SBCs acquisition of Ameritech was the largest telecom deal ever, since then eclipsed by Verizons purchase of GTE).
The merger list goes on. In April, the three-year old broadband Internet provider, Qwest Communications International Inc., completed its acquisition of another former Baby Bell, Denver-based US West Corp., for $47.5 billion. Foreign telecom companies are also getting into the mix, an act of reciprocity for the many years of U.S. telecom purchases abroad. In July, Deutsche Telekom announced plans to buy the cellular provider VoiceStream Wireless Corp. for $50.3 billion, and in August Japans NTT Communications, completed its $5 billion purchase of the U.S. Internet server, Verio Inc.
In many cases, older telecom companies with unionized work- forces have purchased non-union newer companies. And with each merger, the unionized companies have tried to leverage the increase in employees to dilute the unions presence and influence.
Verizons purchase of GTE was such a case. The slew of mergers and acquisitions have clearly awoken workers to the realization that although the economy may be good for the moment, another round of corporate mergers, and job elimination is likely, said UMass Juravich. In early-September, Qwest announced it would eliminate more than 13,000 jobs as part of its acquisition of US West.
Verizons union contract forbids layoffs, a reality that came as a some surprise to those in the press. In fact, the decision by the CWA and IBEW to strike against Verizon was greeted by some in the press as the curious grumb- lings of workers that had chosen not to embrace the potential of the so-called New Economy.
The Industry Standard declared in its August 14 issue that a labor dispute might seem out of place in the Internet Economy, where most employers worry more about filling jobs than about fending off union organizers. A leading voice of the Internet business community, the magazine added that despite the booming economy, unionized workers are concerned theyre being denied their piece of the new-economy pie.
Prior to the start of the strike, the New York Times portrayed the conflict as one that pits old-line labor against the New Economy. After an accord was reached, the newspaper seemed obliged to acknowledge that organized labor still has a place in the New Economy.
All the talk of New Economy versus Old Economy riled CWA organizer Steve Early. The newer jobs in the communications industry, he argued, are much the same as the old ones. They both require a sales force, technicians, and maintenance personnel.
The only thing that distinguishes the workers in this so-called New Economy is the fact that the new workforce in the new economy side is treated shabbily, he said. The people have no rights, they have no grievance procedure, they have minimal benefit coverage compared to the traditional benefit package. They dont have guaranteed across-the- board increases, they dont have any number of things that are standard parts of a contract thats been built up over 30 or 40 years bargaining. And the working conditions dont smack of anything new. They smack of the conditions that existed in factories before the eight-hour-day and the 40-hour-week was won.
Indeed much of the telecommunications industry remains unorganized. Around the Washington DC offices of the Communications Workers of America, Debbie Goldman and her co-workers among the unions research staff refer to a particularly bad moment in the CWAs recent organizing history as the Christmas Massacre.
That was the day back in 1987 when officials of the long-distance telephone company MCI Corp. fired a couple of hundred workers at a call center outside of Detroit which was in the beginning stages of a union drive. They plain fired everybody, Goldman recalled. Just a few days before Christmas.
The CWA had a similar experience with Sprint Corp. in 1994 after working with a group of employees at one of its San Francisco telemarketing centers geared specifically to Spanish speaking customers. One week before the company had agreed to hold an NLRB election on union representation, the employees were told by Sprint that the center was being shut down, and that the workers were out of job.
This time, however, the union filed a grievance with the NLRB which in typical fashion dragged on for nearly four years until the board cited Sprint for more than 50 labor law violations that included intimidation, using employees to disseminate information, and threatening to fire employees. Thats the pattern of those two companies, Goldman added. They will aggressively fight and even break the law in order to keep a union out and theyve been very successful as a result. So we have made very little inroads.
A Sprint spokesperson, Mark Bonavia, said company employees have chosen not to unionize because they are largely pleased with working conditions. People unionize because theyre getting crappy benefits, he said. We offer our employees good benefits and wage packages; then again, if they want to unionize they can, we wont stand in the way.
Today, unionized employees at Sprint comprise just 12.5 percent of its 77,600 employees. WorldCom, which purchased MCI in 1998, has managed to block any and all union organizing campaigns. Not surprisingly, WorldCom chose Sprint for a merger partner in a $129 billion deal that regulators shot down in June on anti-trust grounds.
At Verizon, the card-check agreement does not go into effect for six months. As a result, the company, says Master, has begun a campaign to press its non-union wireless workers to resist the approaches of union organizers. AT&T is doing the same at its call stations in the south and southwest. Company spokesman Steven Marcus said Verizon is committed to abiding by the contract.
The CWA, meanwhile, is gearing up for a largescale organizing blitz for the winter and spring. The first target is Verizons wireless workers, and later, GTEs non-unionized employees. Further afield, the union would like to bring former Ameritech workers, now employed by SBC, into the union.
Were going to have to go out and win the same kind of card check and neutrality agreement that we have for wireless in the rest of the former GTE areas as those contracts come up in the next few years, Early said. Ultimately, we need a national contract, and we can only get there by organizing the unorganized in wireless. Z